Walking at Night around Soho

  Thomas De Quincey, known as an opium addiction writer, first visited London in 1802. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, during his first life in London, he depicts London’s nocturnal aspects, admiring the life of the poor. Dickey argues that being naturally interested in female peripatetics ‘technically called street walkers’, De Quincey walked ‘through a nightmare city recording his observations’ (http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/addicted-life-thomas-de-quincey). He goes on to argue that ‘De Quincey is the first modern flaneur’. Thus De Quincey can be identified both as a walker and a person who observed walkers despite the fact that it is no doubt necessary to go outside and walk to observe walkers. It could be argued that to several extents Soho and the areas surrounding it have visibly changed from what De Quincey saw as ‘a nightmare city’ because of several developments the human society has achieved. 

 My walk began at the Holborn Underground station at 8:00 pm on 28th November 2016. In initiating the journey going firstly in the direction towards the British Museum with the curiosity to observe how it looks like at night, I immediately realised that the walk was undoubtedly going to be made absolutely harsh by the extreme temperature. Beaumont (2015: p300) is definitely right to assume that in De Quincey’s homeless experience in his first life in London, ‘he must have endured some pretty brutal conditions, not least because it was already November’ when arriving. Near the museum were streets lights of which lightness appeared to contribute to diminishing the fear of pedestrians.

 Passing in front of the Tottenham Court Road station, I made my way to Oxford Street. The first thing that could be noticed was that the darkness of the street had disappeared completely due to the Christmas illuminations. Even at 8:30 pm, there were still countless people walking, in particular around the huge intersection near the Oxford Circus station. De Quincey’s description of this area as ‘the great Mediterranean of Oxford-street’ (p28 in Oxford World Classics 2013 edition) in his Confession characterises its crowdedness and the fact that in comparison with what I saw during my walk, perhaps Oxford Street has not witnessed a significant increase in the number of night walkers.

  I proceeded my walk into Regent Street which connects Oxford Street with Piccadilly. In the street, it was noticeable that public one garbage bin had been installed in almost every 50 meters. Probably thanks to this, the surface was kept clean with a little amount of garbage, which offered the avoidance of uncomfortable walk to people. Furthermore, the tidiness is largely attributable to night cleaners. Most of them are from Africa, some illegally migrating to the UK and they have nothing glamorous; they are underpaid and usually work all the night, return home at 7:30 am and get sleep until 4:00 pm merely to work again in the winter therefore can rarely see the sunlight (Sandhu, 2006: pp30-35). However, the fact that in Regent Street bags full of garbage, presumably generated at daytime, became visible to night walkers because they were left at public bins and accumulated aside is applicable even to almost every street I walked though. This obviously had a negative impact on the appearance of the clean and well-maintained street.

 Almost half way through the street, I turned into the dark side, inside Soho, to head off to Golden Square which is believed to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren around 1670s (http://myparks.westminster.gov.uk/parks/golden-square/). The square gives the sense of nature in the crowded metropolis, consisting of ‘bedding displays and shrub planting with perimeter rose beds and grass verges, and 4 mature Hornbeam trees marking the east and west entrances’ (http://myparks.westminster.gov.uk/parks/golden-square/). Moreover, Golden Square possesses familiarity with De Quincey. On one evening accompanied with Ann, he ‘slipped off into Golden Square and there briefly deposited themselves’ without desiring to be connected to the noise and flash of Piccadilly (Beaumont, 2015: p307). In fact, the combination between the silence of the square and illusionary orange lights was effective enough to offer relaxation and disconnection from Piccadilly’s absolutely artificial and busy environment. The positive effects of visiting the square as an opportunity of De Quincey to be surrounded by nature are encouraged as Beaumont (2015: p343) maintains that ‘for the Romantics, night was a privileged time for apprehending nature’. 

 Admiring the diversity of Piccadilly with regard to races, language used by people walking, culture, I continued to walk eastwards. Then I turned into fairly narrow and slightly dark Greek Street. Towards the end of the street was 58 Greek Street where De Quincey slept at night, described in his Confession. He explains that he had a ten-year-old female cohabitant and the extremely bad conditions of the house caused her to believe the house was haunted. In the current time, not only the house but also the entire street did not seem to have had dark side. Moreover, it was likely that its function to connect Oxford Street and Piccadilly had resulted in the diversity of the people passing the street at night, which was noticed thanks to the clothes they wore; some were formally suited up and the others casually. According to Richmond (2013: p3), clothing can reveal or mispresent the wearer’s identity including occupations and social allegiance.

 Then my walk was continued heading off towards Covent Garden which was my final destination. Many of the buildings demonstrated the bond between shops on the ground floor and residential spaces upstairs. 

 Finally arriving Covent Garden at 11:00 pm, I realised that some people were still walking through along and inside it. Although the shops were closed, possessing no commercial attraction at night, Covent Garden was likely to function effectively as a junction of pedestrians due to its shape; people were coming from and going to different directions. Furthermore, these people probably were confident about where they went, without getting lost, because of their familiarity with the place fostered at daytime when business is dominant.  

 Overall, the nightmare London De Quincey experienced did not exist anymore. The streets in which I conducted this walk were always remained illuminated by lights, there were still countless people and commercial aspects were clearly visible at late night. Gilbert and Henderson’s comment that ‘shopping, eating drinking and visiting theatres and concert halls’ have been crucial to the visitor (2002: p129) could be extended to night time as numerous pubs, restaurants and a variety of shops in places like Oxford Street and Piccadilly stayed open.


Beaumont, M. (2015). Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. London: Verso.

De Quincey, T. (1821). Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Edited in Morrison, R. (2013). Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxfors University Press.

Gilbert, D. and Henderson, F. (2002). London and the Tourist Imagination. Edited in Gilbert, P. K. (2002). Imagined Londons. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sandhu, S. (2007). Night Haunts. London: Verso.

Richmond, V. (2013). Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





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